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[whitespace] The Quick and The 'Living'

This year's New Music Works' 'Night of the Living Composers' was a mixed bag

By Scott MacClelland

HALF-WAY THROUGH the last piece, Steve Reich's Eight Lines, I departed Saturday's New Music Works concert at UC-Santa Cruz, and headed for home, listening to a CD of chamber music by Witold Lutoslawski. It was the right decision, but perhaps taken too late.

This year's NMW Night of the Living Composers was a disappointment. For me, Lutoslawski, an outstanding living composer, confirmed it, even though the Reich was the second-best piece on the program.

What happened here? Artistic director Phil Collins made some poor programming choices and paid insufficient attention to production values. Reich is certainly the most dedicated and respected of the minimalist composers. More than any other, he has mined the minimal mother lode and turned up the most riches (even though the demands he makes on his listeners can be daunting).

Alas, this performance was sabotaged. In it, the four pianos overshadowed the other instruments and all but obliterated the strings. Although Reich doubled the strings of the work's original version precisely to mitigate this problem, the setup in the music hall effectively mooted his fix.

For me, Reich is always a challenging listen. For that reason, I will find it hard to make time to hear this piece again. Who said you only get one chance to make a first impression?

The best piece was the opening quartet for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone and piano by the only dead composer on the "living" program, Anton Webern. Despite its texture of pointillistic aphorisms, its essence blooms in the ear, as the composer may have intended. Of course, this couldn't happen but for the excellent playing by, respectively, Cynthia Baehr, Bruce Foster, William Trimble and Michael McGushin. Indeed, I have rarely heard Webern chamber music played with such grace and comfort, like a dear old friend.

Between the Webern and the unfortunate Reich, the program mostly took a lower road. Chris Pratorius' Madrigal: Neruda's Poema 20 gave soprano Rita Lilly an appealing, minor-key-inflected cantillation that wisely took its musical cues from the text. However, even with an English translation, Lilly's articulation of words made it nearly impossible to understand. For this reason--two others come to mind--the words should have been printed in the program. They were not.

Pratorius won the New Music Works 2001 student composition prize a few weeks ago and received a plaque from sponsor Ernest Kretschmer. But how successful he was in this piece, based on standards he established himself, must remain unknown except to those who understood Lilly's words. The accompaniment by flutist Teresa Orozco-Petersen, cellist Renata Bratt and pianist McGushin fell sweetly on the ear.

Linda Bouchard's Possible Nudity is a piece I would like to hear again, to get a better grasp on its forms. But for sure, its palette of colors would make the rainbow jealous. For viola, cello, contrabass, percussion and harp (respectively played by Ellen Ruth Rose, Karen Andrie, Stan Poplin, Mark Verregge and Jennifer Cass), it shimmered and glowed with unique iridescence. Verregge's marimba and other delicate exotica seemed to double the number of tones, but the range of effects on the strings, not least sul ponticello and harmonics, outran the usual vocabulary.

Hi Kyung Kim's After the Fall, played by John Sackett and Peter Josheff, was little more than a technical display piece for clarinet and bass clarinet. Timothy Bell's Mountain Passes, for an ensemble of 10, shouldn't have been on the program at all. It gave the musicians simplistic, unchallenging material and, in terms of time, far outlasted whatever creative ideas it purported or expressive content the composer imagined was there.

Participating musicians not mentioned above included Irene Herrmann (piano and mandolin), flutist Lars Johannesson, violinists Iantha Rimper, Timb Harris and Matt Lau, violist Chad Kaltinger, and pianists Ivan Rosenblum and Yalenda Listmann.

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From the March 7-14, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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